Late last month, after an especially bad debate performance, Jeb Bush’s campaign needed to make the argument that their candidate still belonged in the 2016 presidential race. He’d been dropping the polls, fundraising was meh, and Marco Rubio had just made him look like a fool on national television. Jeb had to send the message that he was still in this thing, and that this Rubio character wasn’t all he was cracked up to be. So the campaign leaked a long-term strategy document that dropped a few half-veiled warnings about the insurgent Florida senator, calling him a “risky bet” who has credit card troubles and some shady associates. Most ominous of all, however, was Team Jeb’s warning that “those who have looked into Marco’s background in the past have been concerned with what they have found.”
There have been rumors about Rubio circulating in Florida for years because that’s the sort of thing that happens when you're an ambitious politician. Being a relative newcomer to national politics means that you’re more vulnerable to this sort of pernicious whispering – just ask Sen. Barack Obama, who was fathered by Malcom X in Kenya, educated in a madrassa, joined the Black Panthers, and then became president of the United States. The nod to “concerns” was Team Jeb’s way of trying to push some of these rumors to the forefront.
Well, now we know that that was actually Jeb’s second bite of the Rubio rumor apple. Buzzfeed’s McKay Coppins reports that early on in the 2016 race, as Jeb was looking to freeze out potential rivals for the nomination, some top Bush advisors were discreetly passing along concerns to donors about how Rubio had had extramarital affairs and wasn’t fully “vetted” as a potential candidate. They even apparently tried to sell MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough on the idea that Rubio has career-ending skeletons in his closet.
That Jeb’s people would go down this path is interesting for a few reasons. First off, it meshes well with the Bush family history of vicious, clandestine rumor-mongering about political adversaries. Jeb’s brother George won the 2000 South Carolina presidential primary in ugly fashion, capitalizing on a sudden surge in grassroots whispering about his chief rival, John McCain. There were rumors that McCain’s adopted Bangladeshi daughter was actually his illegitimate black child, that his wife was a drug addict, and that he visited prostitutes. Much of the dirt was being slung by people who were allied to the Bush campaign, and reporters recalled being nudged in the direction of the rumors by campaign operatives. The inhabitants of Bushworld have never put themselves above a good smear campaign – just last year Karl Rove was trying to get people talking about Hillary Clinton potentially having brain damage.
What’s also worth noting is the audience Team Jeb selected for these Rubio whispers: the elites of the Republican establishment. Jeb’s people targeted the powerbrokers within the party in an attempt to cut Rubio off at the knees well in advance of any votes being cast. There’s a certain logic to all of it, given that Rubio is an obvious competitor for the establishment’s support, but targeting the people in power also makes it far more difficult to keep your hands clean. Not just anybody can gain an audience with a top-flight GOP donor and pitch them a tale about Rubio fathering kids out of wedlock. You’d have to be pretty high up the food chain to get that kind of access. As Coppins reports, Rubio’s people have zeroed in on two people as the sources of the rumor-mongering: Bush fundraiser Ann Herberger and longtime Jeb associate Ana Navarro. Jeb’s team, of course, denies that they’ve done anything like this, but if top Bush people have indeed been whispering to top Republican donors, there’s no real chance of plausible deniability here for Jeb.
You also get the sense that while Jeb recognized Rubio as a threat early on, he never really had a coherent strategy for what to do about him. Perhaps they just assumed that Mitt Romney’s decision not to run in 2016 would be taken by everyone as a signal that the GOP establishment was clearing the decks for Jeb, and that Rubio would get the message too (with a little behind the scenes encouragement). Whatever the case, it seems like Jeb’s plan from the start was to trust that some persistent but unsubstantiated rumors would be enough to hold off Rubio. In keeping with the general theme of the Jeb campaign, that plan hasn’t worked out.